During a nearly three-hour budget hearing into which nuclear weapons seldom figured, Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said Thursday she supports building a two-state complex to produce at least 80 plutonium pits annually.
That’s among the most, if not the most, definitive statement of support any senior Biden administration official has made for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) pit plan since inauguration day.
Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) got the pledge out of Granholm when the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development subcommittee held its first hearing of the year on the Department of Energy’s 2022 budget request.
Calvert asked Granholm if she believed the nuclear triad is important — “absolutely,” Granholm said — and whether she specifically supported the two-state pit strategy — “I do,” she said.
The NNSA plans to produce 80 pits a year by 2030 at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C. Los Alamos will start first and is scheduled to produce multiple war-ready pits starting in 2024, ramping up to 30 annually by 2026. Savannah River is slated to come online in 2030 with 50 pits a year. The pits will initially be for W87-1 intercontinental ballistic missile warheads.
Granholm did not say during the hearing what the Biden administration’s proposed top-line budget for the NNSA would be in fiscal year 2022. At deadline, the administration had yet to announce its detailed federal funding request for fiscal year 2022, but it had produced a so-called skinny budget in April, which calls for a $46 billion DOE budget.
Overall, the first Biden budget would boost non-defense federal spending by around 16 percent to some $769 billion while upping defense spending by a little more than 1.5 percent, to roughly $753 billion.
Meanwhile on Thursday, Granholm also said she has asked the NNSA and DoE’s Office of Nuclear Energy “to take a look and see if there’s any efficiencies to be gained from working in tandem to develop that next generation of uranium enrichment.”
Centrus Energy is working on a 16-machine cascade at DOE’s Portsmouth Site in Ohio that will be able to produce 19.75 percent enriched uranium fuel, or high assay low enriched uranium (HALEU). The company has a three-year, $115 million, 80-20 cost-share contract funded by the Office of Nuclear Energy to deliver some 600 kilograms of HALEU by June 2022.
Centrus has said the new Portsmouth cascade couldn’t produce defense uranium as-is, but that it could build defense-capable centrifuges if the NNSA selects the company as the winner of an ongoing competition to produce a domestic enrichment capability that could come online and refine uranium for weapons tritium production in the 2040s.
“I know that you’ll see progress on this HALEU issue in the budget,” Granholm said during the hearing.
Together, the nuclear weapons programs managed by the NNSA and the legacy nuclear-weapons cleanup managed by DOE’s Office of Environmental Management made up some 60 percent of the parent agency’s 2021 appropriation.
In Granholm’s written testimony for Thursday’s hearing, what detail there was about nuclear weapons and waste programs at DOE was relegated to the penultimate paragraph of the final page.
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), the ranking member of the subcommittee, picked up on that, telling Granholm he was disappointed that the NNSA “gets short shrift in the budget overview.”
At the same time, the Biden administration remains in the middle of a closed-door review on U.S. nuclear weapon policies, during which high-level officials have essentially been banned from talking about the fate of DOE and Pentagon nuclear modernization efforts.
In her written testimony, Granholm said the 2020 DOE budget request “supports a safe, secure, and effective nuclear stockpile, and a continued modernization program. This includes the recapitalization of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA’s) physical infrastructure and essential facilities to ensure our deterrent remains viable.”